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Northwood truck parking rest stop off of northbound I-35 slated to close

By Rod Boshart, special to the Globe Gazette

DES MOINES — Road warriors in Iowa soon will have fewer places to rest and refresh or park their rigs while traversing the interstates.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Transportation have released an updated long-range plan for the state’s rest area system that calls for closing eight full-service rest areas — six in western and two in central Iowa — and 10 smaller parking-only locations before 2028.

Iowa DOT officials say 30 of the 38 exiting full-service rest areas will remain open with 12 older sites to be upgraded before 2033. They also plan to upgrade and expand truck parking at six remaining strategically located parking-only rest areas and add 247 truck parking spaces throughout the system.

“The rest areas are one of the more popular features that the DOT has on the highway system,” said Steve McMenamin, Iowa DOT rest area administrator.

“Our rest areas are very popular and we get compliments from all over the country from people who say they are the best rest areas in the country,” McMenamin added. “We may not be on the leading edge but we’re close. We’re doing things that other people want to do.”

The 10 parking-only rest area sites and seven of the eight full-service locations targeted for closing are approaching the end of their useful life after 50 years or more of service, and would have required considerable expense to replace. So Iowa DOT officials decided to take the $32.8 million in savings tied to the closures and channel that money toward the $100 million in improvements at other sites slated over the next 30 years.

McMenamin said the proposed changes represent “kind of a trade off” by replacing some of the less-used rest stops — several along Interstate 29 — while making some of the other rest areas nicer than they are.

“By so doing that, we can add more new structures and that will change the whole look of the entire system far more quickly than it would doing piecemeal,” he said. “I think it’s probably a good thing. I’m not in favor of closing anything, but nonetheless I think it will be a better program in the end.”

Northbound and southbound rest areas slated for closing are located along Interstate 29 near Missouri Valley and Sergeant Bluff; northbound and possibly the southbound rest areas along I-35 near Story City; and the eastbound and westbound rest areas along I-880 near Loveland in western Iowa.

Although the southbound Story City rest area along I-35 is included as a proposed closure, Iowa DOT officials say that because it was recently constructed it will remain open through 2049 or later, and plans for closure will be re-evaluated at that time.

Parking-only areas along I-29 near Mondamin and Salix as well as along I-35 near Osceola, St. Charles, Huxley, Story County and Northwood and an eastbound I-80 parking-only area near Avoca are on the list slated for closure.

Locations recommended for expansion at existing sites include rest areas near Pacific Junction and Onawa on I-29; the Osceola rest areas and Clear Lake parking-only areas on I-35; rest areas near Underwood, Mitchellville, Victor and Davenport and parking-only locations near Minden and Wilton on I-80; and the Cedar Rapids southbound rest along I-380.

Iowa DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry said the process of determining the outcomes in the long-range plan issued this month began in 2012. The time came, she said, to re-evaluate the needs of rest areas in enhancing a modern transportation system balanced with the need for investment in the roadside facilities.

“The only thing that we considered was just the truck parking,” Henry said. “If anything needed to be improved, we were just looking at modernizing and creating improvements to make it better for users but not adding any new.”

The process moved through several phases that included a study and documentation of customer needs and satisfaction with existing rest areas, two public input periods and an initial implementation strategy for the rest area system, she said.

The final proposal keeps Iowa in compliance with federal guidelines requiring up to one hour’s travel time between interstate rest stops.

“This is our plan moving forward,” Henry said, noting that each of the proposed closures will have to be included in the five-year transportation program that the Iowa DOT Commission approves annually.

“This is our vision, but if things change that may be adjusted as we’re actually programming out our projects.”

Brenda Neville, president and chief executive officer for the Iowa Motor Truck Association, praised state officials for reaching out to various stakeholders, including truck drivers and transportation company owners, to get input.

“This kind of collaboration is important and necessary,” Neville said. “Truck parking is a very big issue for the trucking industry. Having adequate truck parking is essential for the efficient delivery of the products we all depend on. The Iowa DOT has been very proactive in dealing with truck parking here on Iowa.”

McMenamin said the Iowa system lacks adequate truck parking statewide, so that was a future need that had to be addressed.

Also, even though legislation seeking to require adult changing stations at Iowa rest areas failed to pass during the 2020 session, McMenamin said Iowa DOT planners already are incorporating them in the design of new facilities given the demand they see coming.

Other changes in the offing are the removal of the few remaining pay telephones at rest stops and a switch from Wi-Fi access to expanding connections for computers, providing new information kiosks and other offerings given the changing nature of personal devices and user needs, he said.

“We still have pay phones out there but it’s entertaining to me. People stop there and take family pictures by the pay phone because they’ve never seen one before,” he said. “Nobody uses them. We used to have four to five per building but now we have one and it’s rare that you see anybody use them.”